How it All Began

Do you ever wonder how the idea for a particular fund raising organization originates in someone’s mind? And specifically, for the DeKalb Education Foundation, how does that idea develop into a successful fundraising organization that, 25 years later, continues to enrich the educational experiences of the students of DeKalb School District #428?

For the DeKalb Education Foundation, or DEF, success is defined by having dispersed over $500,000 in the form of grant requests to individual classrooms and school programs since the Foundation’s inception in 1987.

As students in DeKalb, Cortland, and Malta enter their schools this fall, many will see a new addition to their learning environment. For example, in Ms. Colvin’s Huntley School classroom, students will be anxious to use the SMART Table interactive learning center; Ms. Prellwitz’s first graders will be excited to learn that they will be recording their voices with new Easi-Speak Recorders as they develop their reading skills; Ms. Jarvis, Reading Specialist at Huntley Middle School, will be anticipating a newfound interest in reading when students at HMS are introduced to the new Study Island reading package. Unfavorable economic conditions notwithstanding, these types of curriculum enhancements were precisely the types of supplements DEF founding directors had in mind for funding when they established the DeKalb Education Foundation.

The idea that initiated the creation of DEF began with someone who saw an opportunity that would encourage a partnership between the school district and the community. The knowledge that a strong support system for the schools would lead to increased educational opportunities for every student provided the inspiration that lead to the concept of the DeKalb Education Foundation.

In 1987, as the school year began, DeKalb School Board member John Rey read over the financial information being presented at a meeting. With adverse economic conditions affecting the school district’s operating budget, it was clear that if students were going to be able to experience many of the educational programs, activities, and supplemental materials designed to enrich the current curriculum, then the necessary funding would have to come from an outside source. John noted a “zero balance appeared in the column titled Business Partnerships, reflecting a lack of connection between the school district and local businesses.” In recognizing the need for a link between the business sector of the community and the schools, the idea for a non-profit fundraising foundation, independent of District #428, was formed.

John Rey was vital in the formation of DEF, working closely with the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Jack Deere, in recruiting individuals from different sectors of the community to volunteer to serve on the board of directors. Thoughtful planning and wise direction from the founding members, combined with the shared mindset that places a high value on education, laid the groundwork that continues to guide DEF today.

One of the first community members to be recruited, John Castle, became the first DeKalb Education Foundation Board President. John was instrumental in establishing and registering the Foundation as a SOl( c) 3 organization, as well as providing legal expertise for the founding process of DEF.

Other members of the original founding board who volunteered their time and expertise included Ken Barshinger, Martin Bartels, Dr. Stanley Brandon, Marion Conde, Ellen Hein, Richard Katz, Dr. John LaTourette, Marjorie Lehan, Rev. Norman Roddick, and Kathy Siebrasse. Alan Berg, School Board President, and Dr. Jack Deere, Superintendent of DeKalb Community School District #428, served on the board solely in an advisory capacity, allowing DEF to work in partnership with the schools, but not being involved in funding decisions.

One of the first tasks of the newly formed board was to provide a name for the organization. DeKalb Education Foundation was easily decided upon, as it provided an identification with the school district, and education was represented as the basis for the Foundation. With the name in place, the founders were able to begin to create public awareness for DEF. Board member and co-owner of the Midweek Newspaper, Kathy Siebrasse, was pivotal in the initial publicity of DEF, as well as providing a place for the board to meet, the Midweek Newspaper office boardroom! Press releases in the Midweek provided an introduction to DEF and to the first solicitation for funds for DEF. The financial base from which the Foundation would operate began with a promise from a local couple, who chose to remain anonymous, to donate $50,000 if DEF could raise a matching $50,000 by December 31, 1987. With that incentive in place, fundraising became a priority. At that time, DEF raised the necessary $50,000, which allowed them to receive the $50,000 matching contribution. Since then, DEF has been sustained by the continuing financial support of community members. DEF has continued the fall fund drive tradition with a community-wide fundraising letter intended to create awareness of DEF, and inspire support for DEF in the form of financial contributions. In addition, various fundraising events have been conducted throughout the years, the most notable being Comedy Night.

Comedy Night has undergone many changes through the years, from different locations, to different venues. (One year a sock-hop replaced the usual comedy venue, but not successfully.) This entertaining event has been held at Kishwaukee Country Club, South Pointe Centre, Duke Ellington Ballroom at NIU, and in recent years at the Egyptian Theater in DeKalb. From a stand-up comedian, to an entire evening of entertainment beginning with a silent and live auction, followed by a professional comedy club performance, this event has become very popular with the DeKalb community. In addition, artwork, Forensics Club presentations, and vocal and orchestral performances by DHS students have been featured at Comedy Night.

Some contributions, whether received from fundraising events such as Comedy Night, or bequests, are earmarked for a special purpose. The first such contribution was from Marion Conde, a founding board member, and her brother, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Willard Wirtz of Washington D.C. This endowment gift was given to DEF on behalf of other family members in the memory of their parents who were committed to the importance of education. This gift gave rise to the Wirtz Award that is awarded annually to an outstanding teacher or staff member. Initially, the family managed this award, however, in recent years, poor health has prevented this and DEF has assumed responsibility for managing the endowment award.

Additionally, DEF now has the responsibility of awarding 8 senior scholarships. The establishment of these scholarships, through donor designation, reflects a commitment to the importance of education.

The DeKalb County Community Foundation, or DCCF, whom DEF has a long history of partnering with for the professional management of endowment funds, manages some of these scholarships. DEF’s relationship with DCCF began in the formative years when it was decided that DEF would be better served by outsourcing the investment decisions to a professional fund-management organization. Since that transfer of responsibility, DEF has benefited from the relationship with DCCF and its financial capabilities. It is because of this working relationship that a representative from DCCF has been added to the Foundation’s Board of Directors as an ex-officio member.

From what began as a grassroots organization in 1987, is today a valuable resource that, for 25 years, teachers have looked to for help. In that time, the Foundation has broadened the educational experience for District #428 students in countless ways. Whether it’s reading new biographies in the library, using 3D technology software for math and science, or gaining lifelong lessons from “STAND UP! Change Teen Statistics” at DeKalb High School, students have directly benefited from the efforts of DEF-all made possible by the contributions of community members.

Each year DEF receives many worthwhile grant requests from dedicated teachers requesting funding for enriching educational materials or programs. Historically, these grants were awarded on the basis of merit, innovativeness, number of students benefited, and longevity. They were awarded much the same as they are today, with the same philosophy: the enhanced educational experiences these grants provide are the building blocks for a strong foundation from which the children of District #428 develop. Through education, DeKalb Education Foundation provides community members with an opportunity to invest themselves in the future of the students, the schools, and the community. As John Castle stated in 1987, “today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders.” With that in mind, DEF continues to be a worthy investment with benefits that have the potential to last a lifetime.

Written by Nancy Schelkopf, DeKalb Education Foundation board member August 2012

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